When Franklin Roosevelt outlined his essential four freedoms in 1941 he was convinced democracy could only be defended and advanced beyond the remaining 11 democracies by replacing classical liberalism with a comprehensive concept based on freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom of want and freedom from fear.
Real freedom cannot exist if one of these four freedoms is violated. When ordinary people lack employment and income security and when economic hardship forces them to accept whatever is offered on the labour market, they lack substantial freedom. They are then merely free to lose. In developing this further Amartya Sen argued that the ultimate success of societal development should be judged against the legal and material freedom people enjoy to fully develop their capabilities.
Such a concept of inclusive freedom is fundamentally different from the exclusive freedom of market liberalism based largely on contractual arrangements and purchasing power, where money allows one to command and forces the other to surrender, where harsh economic dependency is disguised behind contracts between formally equal parties. Inclusive freedom instead is based on socio-economic security enabling all to participate as independent citizen in society. For inclusive freedom trade unions and other collective organisations of free women and men are indispensable as they are the backbone of any vibrant civil society and the only way to make rights and freedom a reality in daily life before and behind factory gates.
Providing basic income security for all in need, pursuing policies of full employment and keeping inequality within a reasonable range require regulations and institutions for quality public services, universal welfare state provisions, comprehensive collective bargaining coverage, public investment and sufficiently progressive taxation. The vast majority of Europeans supports this European vision of inclusive and comparatively equitable societies offering a quality of life for most people unmatched by any other world region.
That’s why all mainstream politicians don’t quarrel about these objectives but rather the methods of achieving them. Political leaders that promise to take away workers’ rights, advocate stagnating or even declining wages and pensions, destroy public services while giving tax-benefits to the very rich and bailing out those responsible for the biggest financial crisis since 1929 have no chance at the ballot box. Therefore the protagonists of exclusive freedom have taken resort to the creation of supranational institutions and global governance to unleash ‘structural forces’ that impose regressive distributional policies on national governments and disempower national democratic decision-making processes. In this process in particular, the European Union transformed from the visionary dream of a peaceful, open and democratic Europe to the most powerful international heavy artillery to subordinate national policies under the imperatives of free markets. Not surprisingly, in parallel to this transformation the European idea lost its popularity and a right-wing protest vote has reached unprecedented heights.
Even one of the greatest achievements of the European integration, the right of people to live and work in any of the EU members states meets growing popular resistance, because instead of liberating people it is used as a weapon against acquired rights and social standards in nation states.
A Europe where free people can move as they like is wonderful. It offers choices and opportunities for individuals; it creates colourful diversity; it helps immunising societies against narrow-minded nationalism; and it makes economic sense. On a continent whose countries have been at war with each other for most of its history, peace should never be taken for granted. Mutual understanding, respect and cross-fertilisation must be a constant effort. Open borders and movement of people are indispensable for this, but it must be under conditions that people can be welcomed and are not used as a force to lower wages and working conditions.
Open borders between countries with very different standards of living increase the supply of labour in potential destination countries. If supply is virtually unlimited the determination of wages and working conditions cannot be left to the forces of supply and demand without creating massive downward pressure, which then feeds understandable hostility towards migrants, in particular among low income earners as they are most likely competing with migrants.
Therefore good and fair labour market regulations are essential for the European dream to survive and in order to enhance our freedoms. The principle of the same remuneration for the same work at the same place needs to be ensured through an appropriate labour market design:
1. The same employment and social rights apply to all workers independent of their nationality or citizenship;
2. A universally applicable minimum wage of approximately 66% of the national median in all EU member states;
3. Posted workers enjoy the same wages, working conditions, social benefits and legal rights as do local workers;
4. Social benefits and in particular pension entitlements are fully portable between employers and between different countries;
5. Freedom of association and collective bargaining are guaranteed, promoted and incentivised;
6. Easy and efficient mechanisms for legal extension and universal applicability of collective bargaining agreements are applied by governments to ensure fair competition;
7. Contracting companies are liable for labour law compliance, including by their subcontractors;
8. Companies violating labour law regulations are excluded from any public contract and their names are published;
9. Enforcement of labour law and legally binding collective agreements are supported through effective and sufficiently resourced labour inspections;
10. Individual workers and workers’ organisations enjoy free of charge access to due legal process to enforce collective bargaining agreements.
11. Direct labour contracts without limit of time must be the legal norm and business models using agency work, contract labour, temporary contract and bogus self-employment need to be subject to tripartite surveillance.
But can Europe afford this? Surely it can. What Europe cannot afford and will not survive is a system that moves people freely across borders as cheap labour for the sake of profit maximization instead of enabling free citizens benefiting from the opportunities of an open Europe.